Wednesday, December 7, 2016

History Behind The First Gurudwara Set Up By Any Sikh In Odisha!

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I found it in a small street, set off from the main road which had the Palace and the market. The small one roomed Gurudwara is built like a forest lodge with a verandah all around. Two huge trees at the entrance dwarfed the little structure. This was the first Gurudwara set up by any Sikh in Odisha. Built in 1883, on the land given by the erstwhile Maharaja of Jeypore, the little Gurudwara had originally been a thatched hut for more than fifty years. The holy book was placed in the small shrine sometime in December 1883 in a grand ceremony that was attended by more than 300 devout Sikhs.

 

The founder of the Gurudwara, Sardar Mahna Singh Nagi was born in 1864 in a village called Lola near Amritsar. Mahna Singh’s parents had died when he was just twelve years old. He could get very little education but he mastered the Punjabi language well. He was well versed in the Sikh martial arts and was an expert Gatka and Sword fighter. Due to penury he was forced to leave the village at a young age to earn his livelihood with his brothers. He worked with them as an apprentice carpenter. At the age of eighteen he joined the Army as a carpenter and saw action in the Second Afghan war in 1882.

 

After his discharge, he came back from the front and started taking small building contracts in Amritsar. He married in a village called Marhri, near Batala and was blessed with two children. A few years later his wife died leaving him to take care of the little children.

 

Having become an experienced building contractor he left Amritsar in search of greener pastures. He arrived at Nagpur and was given the contract to build a Jail. From Nagpur he went to Vishakhapatnam, the port on the East coast of India. It was 1891 and he was 27 years old. Here he met the emissaries of the Maharaja of Jeypore, Bikram Dev. The Maharaja had shifted his Capital and was in search of a contractor to build his new palace.

 

Mahna Singh left for Jeypore which was a good 150 miles from Vishakhapatnam.  The journey to Jeypore was long and rough, through hilly and wild forest terrain. They travelled by bullock carts and it took four days to reach Jeypore.

 

The Maharaja was impressed by the credentials of Mahna Singh and gave him the contract to make the palace. After signing the agreement with the Maharaja, he went back to Punjab and brought 200 skilled workers which included carpenters and masons. It took Mahna Singh 10 years to complete the palace. The Maharaja was overjoyed and rewarded him with riches and out of sheer respect to his honesty and integrity accorded him a special honorary title.

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With so many Sikhs present in Jeypore, Mahna Singh requested the Maharaja to give him a piece of land for making a Gurudwara. The Maharaja agreed and sometime in late 1893 the Gurudwara of Jeypore was consecrated with the Holy Granth Sahib. On the day of the consecration, the Maharaja of Jeypore himself visited the Gurudwara in a State procession and presented Mahna Singh with a double edged Sword, which is still there. This was the first Gurudwara set up by any Sikh in Odisha.

 

Mahna Singh and his clan prospered and the small Sikh community soon grew. Others came and he helped them set up small businesses. The Maharaja would entrust most of his important works to Mahna and took him on as an adviser.

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Sardar Mahna Singh well known for his riches but he was famous for his generosity. The Gurudwara was the only one in miles around. People flocked from afar to take part in the religious ceremonies. The Maharaja too gave his benevolence and the citizens of other communities too would come for the langars. Over the time the old thatched hut was transformed into a tiled roof and later on a tin roof was added.

 

After the death of the Maharaja, the new King was not well disposed toward him and he cancelled a lot of leases and contracts that the earlier king had given. He suffered huge losses but still preferred to remain in Jeypore. The Gurudwara that he had set up saw many upheavals, but it maintained a continuous tradition of recitation of the Gurbani. The post-independence years and the abolition of the Princely Kingdoms saw many of the Sikhs leave Jeypore, but there was an influx of new people who had come after the partition of the country.

 

Mahna Singh died in Jeypore in 1948. Most of his relatives and the people he had got from Punjab left Jeypore. In the late 1950’s, the new breed of Sikhs built another Gurudwara. The stopped going to the old Gurudwara and it fell into neglect. Now only half a dozen Sikh families visit the Gurudwara.

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Today, the little Gurudwara still stands as a living testimony of a noble and kind man who spread the messages of the Gurus not only in words but in deeds. It is maintained frugally, yet the neatness stands out. The woodwork and furnishings like the manji and palki too are sparse, simple and  spartan. The Gurudwara has century old artifacts that were presented by the Maharaja to Mahna Singh. The scimitar that had been presented by the Maharaj is proudly displayed near the palki.  There are calendar images which are more than seventy years old. Even the old much thumbed and frayed Guru Granth Sahibs (vrid swaroops) are carefully wrapped and kept in the sach khand. I counted at least five of the old Granth Sahibs. The original Guru Granth Sahib that was brought by Mahna Singh in 1891 too is still there. Even the official directory of the Gurudwaras of Odisha published by the Orissa Sikh Pratinidhi Board does not list this Gurudwara. It is tragic, as this is the first Gurudwara of the State.